Granny is a Trucker
by Cathy Corcoran
Merril Lynn Sheehan looks just like a grandma is supposed to look - she smiles at the world through wire rimmed spectacles, her gray hair is fluffed in a no nonsense style, she knits sweaters for her four children and five grandchildren - but in spite of her looks, Merrill Lynn Sheehan is far from your average granny. She spends her days driving an 18-wheel tractor trailer truck for U.S. Express, hauling freight up and down the east coast, and as far west as Chicago.
Merrill Lynn’s voice squawks over long distance cell phone as she talks from a rest stop in North Carolina. This morning, she dropped off a truckload of Bicardi rum at the Annheiser Busch plant in Augusta, Georgia. Now, she is hauling a load of yarn to a distributor in Queens, New York. She is on the road for four weeks at a stretch, and calls herself a road gypsy. She says she couldn’t be happier.
A native of Cape Cod, Merrill Lynn spent most of her life on the South Shore, raising her four children. When her last child got married, Merrill Lynn says she was fed up with dead-end office jobs, and fed up with winter. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says, “but I did know I was NOT going to shovel any more snow and I was NOT going to sit in front of a computer screen every day.”
She bought a road map, closed her eyes, and pointed her finger at someplace warm. The following week, she moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. She took a job driving a taxi, and when one of her fellow drivers left to attend truck driving school, he asked Merrill Lynn to go with him. “I thought he was crazy,” she says. “Who’d hire a woman my age to drive a truck?”
Several months later, she attended her friend’s graduation from truck school, and was surprised to see that half the class was older than she, and three of them were women. “All three of them had jobs,” she says. “Good jobs.” Merrill Lynn enrolled in truck driving school, graduating in December, 1996. Within a month, she had her first job. She’s never looked back.
“I love the freedom,” she says. “I have deadlines to make, but there’s no boss hanging over my shoulder.” Merrill Lynn says she enjoys the solitude, and loves seeing the country from the seat of her big rig. Merrill Lynn’s truck is 75 feet long, and is equipped with automatic transmission, power steering, air conditioning and air-glide seats that adjust for comfort. Merrill Lynn sleeps in her truck, and showers at truck stops when she refuels. She has a small TV and her laptop computer for entertainment, and she’s always knitting or crocheting for one of the grandchildren back home. She typically drives 2500 to 3000 miles a week.
The Department of Transportation regulates a maximum of 10 hours driving time, followed by an eight hour break, and of course, safety is the prime concern. “It’s my call to decide if it’s safe enough to drive,” Merrill Lynn says. “I don’t drive in fog, and I don’t drive in ice.” She is proud of her excellent safety record, and criticizes automobile drivers who drive recklessly around big trucks. “They know we’re not as maneuverable as a car,” she says, “so drivers will cut you off in traffic. In fact, some drivers will do anything -including dying - to get in front of a truck.” She says that 90% of fatal accidents involving cars and trucks are caused by the car. “And it’s the person in the car who dies,” she says.
Driving is only one of the skills necessary for hauling freight. “You have to figure out the best way to get from Columbus, Ohio to North Bergin, New Jersey,” Merrill Lynn says. She has a well worn Truckers’ Diary, which lists all truck stops on major roadways, and a GPS to help guide her and let the truck owners know where she is at all times. “They know where you are, how fast you’re going, and how long you’ve been driving,” she says. “It’s a good safety thing.”
Merrill Lynn says she does a complete pre-trip inspection before she heads out on the road, and has learned to fix the occasional minor problem like changing a light or adding oil. She calls for help if there’s a major breakdown. “Physical strength isn’t as important as good common sense,” she says. She says she is prudent about where she parks at night, and feels safe as a woman alone on the road. “There are a lot of couples traveling together, she says, “and truckers kind of watch out for one another.”
Merrill Lynn says her biggest problem on the road is getting enough exercise after sitting for long periods of time. “I stop every couple of hours to stretch and walk around a rest area a couple of times,” she says. She says that trucking can be a good life for a woman. “With good training, almost any woman can learn to drive big rigs. The money is good and you can see the country. Of course, it you have a husband back home, it might not be the job for you. It’s definitely a lifestyle issue.”
She advises women to check out companies that operate their own training programs, and says most are actively looking for women drivers. Commercial drivers must have a clean driving record and no felony convictions.
When her trips end, Merrill Lynn heads to her daughter’s house in Marshfield, to spend her days off with her grandchildren. “I still hate winter,” she says, “but I’d do anything to be with my grandbabies, so Massachusetts is my home base now.” “The kids call me Gramma Trucks,” Merrill Lynn says, laughing. “They think their old granny is pretty cool.”